SALT LAKE CITY -- Top-ranking Mormon leader Robert D. Hales, who left a successful career as a businessman to help guide the church, has died from causes related to his age. He was 85.
Hales died peacefully 12:15 p.m. Sunday in a Salt Lake City hospital surrounded by his wife and family, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.
The New York City native was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and business executive before he was chosen in 1994 as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a high-level governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Hales missed this weekend's church conference after he was hospitalized several days ago for treatment of pulmonary disease and other conditions. At the conference's final session Sunday, leader Henry B. Eyring announced his death to 20,000 people in attendance and millions watching live broadcasts around the world.
"We will miss him. His wisdom and goodness have blessed our lives for many years," said Eyring, one of two top counselors to the church president. "We express our love to his sweet wife and caregiver, Mary, and extend our heartfelt condolences to the family."
Hales is the fourth top Mormon leader to die in the last three years. Quorum members Boyd K. Packer, L. Tom Perry and Richard G. Scott died in 2015.
A replacement will be chosen for Hales at a later date. Funeral plans are pending.
Hales' combination of experience in private business, time spent in the military and deep roots in the religion made him emblematic of Mormon leaders of his era, said Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University,
He also embodied the Mormon message of the late 20th century: "the steady, slow cultivation of character through self-mastery and work," Bowman said. He often emphasized discipline and goal-setting in his conference speeches.
Hales was born in 1932 and grew up in Long Island in a Mormon family with a father who was an artist. Hales would recall a special moment he shared with his father when the two visited a wooded area in upstate New York where church founder Joseph Smith said he saw God and Jesus in what Latter-day Saints call the "first vision." Throughout his life, Hales kept a special painting of the sacred grove in his various offices that his father made for him after that trip.
As a high school baseball pitcher, he dreamed of playing in Major League Baseball. He never realized that dream, but he did get to throw out a first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 2007 as part of Mormon Night at Dodgers Stadium.
Hales earned a business degree from the University of Utah and a master's in business administration from Harvard University. He was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, where picked up a phrase, "return with honor," that he used in speeches.
"This motto was a constant reminder to us of our determination to return to our home base with honor only after having expended all of our efforts to successfully complete every aspect of our mission," Hales said in a 1990 church conference speech. "This same motto, 'Return with Honor,' can be applied to each of us in our eternal plan of progression. Having lived with our Heavenly Father and having come to earth life, we must have determination to return with honor to our heavenly home."
He had a fairly quiet presence during his 23 years on the quorum, often overshadowed by more charismatic brethren such as Jeffrey R. Holland, who was named to the governing body the same year.
Hales was known for being an ambitious man with infectious smile and big heart, said Richard Bushman, a Mormon historian and emeritus professor at Columbia University.
At this weekend's church conference, Quorum member Neil L. Andersen shared a statement Hales asked to have read at the event that addressed the value of faith.
Hales said: "When we choose to have faith we are prepared to stand in the presence of God. After the Savior's crucifixion he appeared only to those who had been faithful in the testimony of him while they lived in mortality. Those who rejected the testimony of the prophets could not behold the Savior's presence nor look up on his face. Our faith prepares us to be in the presence of God."
In a speech at a church conference in 1999, Hales spoke about one of the most important tenets of the religion: strong families. Hales was married and had two sons.
"We must never, out of anger, lock the door of our home or our heart to our children," he said. "Like the prodigal son, our children need to know that when they come to themselves they can turn to us for love and counsel."
Hales death leaves five other men among the religion's top 15 leaders who are older than 84. Church President Thomas S. Monson is 90, and is no longer coming to meetings at church offices regularly because of limitations related to his age. Monson missed this weekend's church conference. Church presidents and quorum members serve until they die.
Hales' death triggered grief and reactions across Utah and in other Western states with large Mormon populations.
Boyd Matheson, president of the Utah conservative think tank the Sutherland Institute, said he saluted Hales decision to walk away from a successful business career to become a model leader for Mormons.
"His soft replies to harsh voices, his gentle invitations to improve and his steely determination to fulfill his duty stand as a witness to the greatness of the man and leave a pattern for leaders and followers to emulate for generations to come," Matheson said.